Tension headache

Having seen two performances of My Head Was a Sledgehammer, the debut by Our Endeavors Productions of Richard Foreman's scattered stream-of-consciousness script, I'm sure of only two things: This show is fast-paced and pleasurable, and it means absolutely nothing.

You might disagree on either or both counts. That's the beauty of a Rorschach test like Foreman's six-actor study of what appears to be the cacophony of the creative process--our reaction to it tells us as much about ourselves as the script. Full of glittering non sequiturs, wrenching changes of mood, and self-deprecating asides, My Head Was a Sledgehammer feels like you're baby-sitting a brilliant, though very undisciplined, child. Fifty percent of the time, you marvel at how so many startlingly perceptive observations bob to the surface. The other half, you feel like you're playing catch-up, poised to receive the silvery jackpot of sentiments and antipathies that the playwright pours out through the mouths of a talented cast, but always just missing the coin that might be vital to truly connecting with the anarchic spirit of this show.

Of course, the playwright, recipient of a genius grant from the MacArthur Foundation as well as a shelf full of Obies, doesn't want you to connect, at least not to the point of letting your emotions guide the experience. A major '70s icon of New York avant-garde theater through his visionary Ontological-Hysteric productions, Foreman is a devotee of lefty spoilsport Bertolt Brecht, who believed something along the lines of what Plato warned about 24 centuries ago--performance is, or can be, the flickering shadows on the cave wall that keep us distracted from the light of truth. Entertainment is a sedative; art is a high-ball restorative.

And so Foreman and, in turn, Our Endeavors are hellbent on tickling you at the same time they keep you at arm's length. I heartily recommend My Head Was a Sledgehammer because it'll clear your mental sinuses like a rude blast of home-bottled horseradish. It's best to view the show in a state of hyper-alertness--down a few cups of cappuccino before you purchase your tickets--because the actors, essentially, are relentless aerobics instructors leading you through a series of verbal calisthenics. Clocking in at an hour and 15 minutes without intermission, My Head Was a Sledgehammer is both too much and not enough. The show's charm comes from its balletic ricochet between these two polarities.

The crazy-quilt clutter of the set, which was designed by director Scott Osborne, looks like Greenville Antique Mall exploded inside the Swiss Avenue Theater--and I mean that as a compliment. Spoons and toasters and baby dolls dangle from the ceiling; a continuous slide show of what looks like a pool party with the actors is projected onto a gilded picture frame, while live video, also of the actors in street clothes, rewinds and fast-forwards on a video screen nearby.

There appear to be three important stations of action--a writing table with a typewriter propped up by concrete blocks; a staircase in the center of the stage; and a corner bed that leads into a rock garden. Most of the play's action revolves around these stations.

What you've read in the local press is true--My Head Was a Sledgehammer indeed features no plot, setting, or characterization. Foreman hands you the raw materials to play Pygmalion, but I wouldn't recommend it; working too hard to make sense of this play spoils the pleasures offered by its parade of subconscious trickery. If one is forced to delineate lead and supporting actors, it would probably go something like this--Dalton James is the suspendered, black-suited ringleader who wonders "Can truth pass between two people? I think not." He perpetually grapples with black-suited Nicole Case, who seems to be the voice of doubt challenging him at every turn. Caroline St. Denis floats on the periphery of this conflict, occasionally shoehorning her way in. John Flores, Erica Sutton, and Todd Duffy are a ragtag chorus emerging from individual cages, each one layered with photographs and mementos, to comment on the proceedings.

What ultimately makes Our Endeavors' version of Foreman's theatrical avalanche engaging is synchronicity--this play is a marvel of harmony between music and mood, sound effect and movement, voice and prop. All tension, all suspense springs from a jittery conversation among these elements, and Scott Osborne has managed to choreograph his articulate, enthusiastic cast into series of confrontations, confessions, and contradictions. Osborne has, thankfully, emphasized the humorous, mischievous side of the author's ramblings, and in turn, all the performers seem to be having a hell of a good time. Dalton James transfers the mordant wit and poignancy, tinctured with just the teensiest bit of hostility, from his own spoken monologues and crafts the playwright's words with a sinister sadness. Nicole Case delivers the role of antagonist-realist with a clear-eyed comic bluntness, going so far as to vomit into the rock garden when James offers a particularly idealistic sentiment, then saving the moment with: "That really turns me on." Caroline St. Denis begins and ends the play as a sleeper, implying that the whole thing may have been her particularly weird dream, and flutters about the stage in filmy negligee with less dialogue than anyone else. Her muteness becomes its own hilarious tool of expression, however, as when she wordlessly incites Duffy, Flores, and Sutton to spank her bottom. Her face spills over with salacious glee.

I wouldn't want to make a steady diet of the kind of anti-formalism Richard Foreman clearly relishes. As a firm believer in the maxim "form follows function," I'd contend that the most revolutionary act a playwright like Foreman can commit is to channel his peripatetic yearnings and terrors into square notions like plot and characterization. The trick, the glory, is to keep them breathing under the yoke. My Head Was a Sledgehammer shatters narrative in the pursuit of a purely psychological theater. It succeeds impressively, but in the process tramples over many of the rewards that make theater unique in the first place.

My Head Was a Sledgehammer runs through September 14. Call (972) 355-2879.

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Jimmy Fowler